Out from under the heavy hand of the state, Vietnam's enterprising thespians are reviving live theater. Audiences are returning, but the gate won't make anyone rich
By CRAIG THOMAS
Popular Vietnamese actress Hong Van watches from the wings of her Phu Nhuan theater as the audience files in. "I've put my heart and soul - and a lot of my money - into this theater," she whispers. "I organize the productions, direct, act and am often up all night rehearsing. Sometimes I'm so tired I can hardly breathe." But her drive is beginning to pay off. Although just three months old, the hall in Ho Chi Minh City is packed night after night. Her current play, The Redemption of Thi Mau, is a hit with audiences and critics alike.
Hong Van is among the new impresarios emerging from communist Vietnam's painfully slow process of xa hoi hoa ("socialization") designed to end state monopolies in areas such as culture, sport and education. Although xa hoi hoa became official policy more than a decade ago, it has only been in the past few years that private, for-profit theater groups have crept back into the arts scene. "Although many lawmakers refuse to accept the fact," says one cultural ministry official, "in reality we are talking about privatization." And new life. Once popular, Vietnamese theater atrophied by the mid-1990s. Actors barely scraped a living as government subsidies were cut. The few plays produced were swamped by slick movie and videos imported in the wake of economic reforms. Unable to adapt, state theater companies became musty dinosaurs.
Stage director Huynh Anh Tuan, a successful Ho Chi Minh city businessman, is among the new players. Four years ago he gambled his own money to open the city's first latter-day private theater, the Institute D'echanges Culturelles Avec La France - an intimate venue with almost as many letters in its name as seats. Tuan put on light, cheerful productions - nothing controversial - and filled the place up regularly. His success encouraged others to try. Small theaters mushroomed, backed mostly by artists like Hong Van who are eager for a chance at self-expression.
The new plays are a real shift from the communist propaganda of lumbering state productions. Although scripts are still vetted, censors are more flexible. Stage bosses like Hong Van now present everyday themes of life and love. Hong Van's hit, Redemption, gives a modern twist to a Vietnamese folktale about a village woman with an illegitimate child.
Still, Ho Chi Minh City is not a blizzard of bouquets. Of the many theaters that opened since 1997, only five remain. Citizens have little disposable income; TV and movies are preferred fare. Hong Van worries her own success might be shortlived. "Sometimes I'm so scared I can't stop shaking," she says. "The number of regular theatergoers is relatively small, so competition for audiences is fierce. There's a constant struggle to come up with something new to draw people."
One solution: poach from other fields. Hong Van recruited pop singer Bang Kieu for a lead role in Redemption. "People had their doubts," she says. But audiences love his performances. Can a Vietnamese version of Miss Saigon be next?
source: Asiaweek.com, July 13, 2001